Saturday, July 11, 2020

Column: Listen to Minneapolis, justice brings peace

My experience as a minority in a system built for failure, and how it can change.

May 29, 2020
Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

When I was 18 and a senior in high school, I took a trip to California. On that trip, my family and I visited Los Angeles. We’d never been to California, so downtown LA was something I needed to see. I was excited. That excitement changed just a few short minutes into this part of our trip, because as I was walking down the street, I caught the glare of a few men down a street adjacent to mine. They began yelling at me. “Go back to your country," "Go home," "We don't want you here." I was on edge for the rest of the day, just waiting for something else like that to happen.

That wasn’t my first experience with racism — experiencing it or witnessing it. This was just a little less subtle than what usually happens to me. My experiences with racism and hate have been a walk in the park compared to some. I know it can be far worse, because I've seen it. We all have.

George Floyd was murdered this week. Others may call it whatever they like. I call pressing your knee and your body weight on a man's neck for nine minutes — a man who was already handcuffed and surrounded by three other officers, pleading for his life, struggling for breath — murder. For me, it isn’t up for negotiating, and you won’t sway me to call it something different.

His name is just one of many on a long list of people who have lost their lives to senseless police brutality and racist hate crimes across the country. As I've been writing this column, I've already received several breaking news notifications on my phone that could be more. Honestly, I’m scared to look.

As the Minneapolis protests rage on, I have struggled with my voice. I have refrained from sending every thought that has popped in my head out to the world in a tweet and have tried to stay focused on objectivity. I can’t do that anymore.

When you read this, it will be the morning, the afternoon or maybe the night after I wrote it. Maybe weeks have gone by and America is in a different place than we are at the moment. But to put this into perspective, I’m writing this at 3 a.m. I’ve rolled in my bed for hours trying to sleep but continue to find myself shaking with anger as I scroll through my Twitter feed. 

To be a journalist, you are supposed to be a fly on the wall — a news reporter, not a news-maker. But the time for objectivity and neutrality is over in this case, because being a journalist also means being a voice and providing a platform for those who can’t speak, for the oppressed, for those who need their voices heard and their stories told. Being a journalist and person of color means all of that tenfold.

I heard a quote a while back and saw it again today. It was by human rights activist Desmond Tutu:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I decided that my place isn't that of silence, because if I don’t speak up for others or for myself, then I am part of the problem. I will not choose the side of the oppressor.

For far too long, we have lived in a system that doesn’t work, a system designed to work for some more than others. For far too long, we have let this happen and the culture we have created has put people of color at a higher risk.

Risk for violence. Risk for poverty. Risk for losing their lives. Risk of continuing on in this cycle, which we have.

In the many ways these problems are intertwined and backed by hundreds of years of hate and oppression, the ones that are very apparent right now are the hate crimes and police brutality that operate parallel to each other. Lives are being taken like they are something that can be given back.

When a black man jogging down the street is chased, shot and killed just because he looks suspect, there is a bigger problem.

When three other officers look on for nine minutes as a man pleads for his life and was murdered, there is a bigger problem.

When the president of the United States responds to the riots of “THUGS” in Minneapolis with, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," there is a bigger problem.

When armed people can protest on the steps of the Michigan Capitol, scream in police officers' faces, hang a doll representing the governor from a fishing pole with a noose tied around its neck but see no repercussion and instead be commended for “liberating” Michigan, there is a bigger problem. There’s a bigger problem because if those protesters were people of color, that story would’ve gone a lot differently.

It’s not just one person. It’s not just one cop. It’s not just one president. It's a society we allowed to be created and sustained for far too long.

Who would have thought that 2020 would look just like 2015. That 2015 would look just like 1964. That we’ve had all this time to get it right and still can’t. And why? Because we don’t have the same color skin. Can it really just be that? Why is this normal?

For my entire life, I have been raised to judge people the way Martin Luther King Jr. said — "on the content of their character, not the color of their skin."

And no, I'm not black. My "color" or race hasn't been the target of this week's attacks. But I feel it.

It's important to note that in each community of people of color, there is a different struggle. I do not go through the same struggles of a black man, a Native American man or another community that experiences its own prejudices, but we are enduring this together. I am not trying to pretend to know everyone's pain, but for those skeptical of the place I write this from, I want you to know that I do feel it. We feel each other's pain because we are what so many people have tried to keep us from being — united and strong.

We are unique, and for that, we are persecuted.

I’ve been pulled over twice in my life, once for having a brake light out and the second time for having snow on my license plate. Each time, I shake — my hands tremble — because I know what can happen, because I was taught as a kid to be careful of this.

I've had the luxury of never being pulled over just to be pulled over. I’ve never been made to step out of my vehicle for no reason. Not everyone gets that, and I feel very lucky that I'm in a situation where I have had to worry less than some.

But the black community shouldn’t have to worry at all. Police are supposed to serve and protect everyone, and in their profession, there shouldn’t be any incidents of mess-ups since people's lives are at risk.

I saw a clip of Chris Rock’s 2018 stand-up "Tambourine" earlier tonight. He said, "whenever the cops gun down an innocent black man ... It’s like, ‘Well, it’s not most cops. It’s just a few bad apples.'"

“But some jobs can’t have bad apples," he also said.

The saying goes "one bad apple spoils the barrel," but maybe the apples were spoiled before they got there. You can't blame all police — several officers have expressed their disgust with what has happened and is happening. There are officers who wear a badge for the reasons they should, so we can't point our fingers at all of them.

The system that allows those already bad apples in is the system that has failed us time and time again. A system where our own government and police have been one of the greatest stewards of violence and crime. They've gone unchecked.

To prevent this from continuing to happen, we need to ensure that the people in those positions — the people we entrust with badges — can’t do these things anymore. We must take the measures necessary to hold them accountable.

I think Minneapolis is doing something like that right now. 

If there is no justice, there is no peace. We need to pay attention to what the people in Minneapolis are trying to show everyone.

The uprising happening right now is pushing America to understand, because when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, no one listened to his message.

The response to peace was violence, and right now, violence is being returned with violence. So, either we make peace, or let the violence tear us apart.

I choose to live my life free from the restraint of color, but not by being color blind. Being color blind won't fix this — acknowledging what is wrong will. I am a Hispanic American, a victim of systemic racism and a witness of even worse. I don’t want this to be my story. I don’t want this to be anyone else’s.

We stand now in the midst of two pandemics. Together, we have fought COVID-19 and together we can beat COVID-19. But the other pandemic has been one that only a few have fought — only the oppressed. An army of unified people have been fighting this for decades, but only together can we overcome the pandemic of racism and hate. Only together can we make things right and fix a crumbling system that the words democracy and freedom would be ashamed of.

Being united is the only way through this. Being united is the only way to secure social justice and progress.

Listen to Minneapolis. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, a riot is the language of the unheard — hear the cries of the oppressed and try to understand that in order to move forward, we must replace that hate with love.

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